I was recently asked to write down my thoughts on what is missing from communications surrounding the Transmountain Pipeline and First Nations. I think we are failing to harness the power of storytelling. Further, these views represent myself only. I am not authorized to speak on behalf of any organization. Everything contained in this blog is already in the public sphere and is without prejudice.
Story telling is critical to Salish cultures. Having worked on complex projects requiring significant community engagement, I believe that the most pressing challenge with the Project is controlling the narrative. There has been significant coverage of the Project in the Province of BC with no clear message. If there is a narrative that has emerged from First Nations in the Fraser Valley, it is that “the Project is being imposed on us; therefore, we are the victims.” The world is watching and this is not a flattering image to present. Instead, there is now an opportunity to engage citizens and leadership to not only craft a winning narrative, but define specific and comprehensive requests which would leverage Aboriginal Rights and Title to obtain significant concessions.
Based on my experience, crafting a powerful narrative is critical to driving subsequent discourse surrounding the Project. I have worked with several organizations where the story that is told is as important as what actually happens. The first was a campaign in the 2015 federal election. More recently, I worked on the international Columbia River Treaty negotiations on behalf of the Secwepemc Nation. Each of these experienced significant success as a result of the story we told.
“Sunny Ways” and “Hope and Hard Work” were the successful maxims in the Federal election. In the Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo riding, we were able to increase voter percentage from just over 5% to 30%. It was the only increase of the three major parties in that riding. We were also able to achieve this with minimal resources. While the other two major parties spent in the neighbourhood of $150,000, we spent $38,000. There is no question that the infrastructure supporting the work that needs to be done is important. However, in theory, each party could have identical machinations, policies, and quantity of volunteers; this wouldn’t account for differences in votes. The story is what matters. More importantly, a story which can be distilled into a succinct, memorable phrase. In Canada, “Sunny Ways” inspired Canadians to overwhelmingly vote for the Liberal Party of Canada. In the United States, “Make America Great Again” resonated with the voting public there. In 3 seconds or less, these phrases inspire a positive image in the general public’s mind.
The pithiness of these stories tells us a lot about the leaders who developed them. It’s no small feat to distill such a message. It requires leadership with a clear vision, emotional intelligence, excellent listening, and courage. When you hear these phrases, you know that the leader has put a great deal of thought into the type of country they would like to lead. You know that they took the time to truly understand the general public and what they require from a leader. You know that they had the courage to present these concepts and champion them. First Nations are looking for this type of leadership on the Project. They are looking for a leader who understands them and can connect. They are looking for an organization that has the capabilities to deliver on a leader’s vision.
Another project I worked on was the Columbia River Treaty. These are ongoing and highly complex international negotiations between the United States and Canada. My role was to coordinate the advocacy of the Secwepemc Nation’s interests. The challenge seemed insurmountable at first. Firstly, there is no formal body which has been given authority to make decisions on behalf of the entire Secwepemc Nation which consists of 17 Bands. This is an artifact of the Indian Act in an era of reconciliation. Secondly, there is very little precedent for Indigenous participation in international negotiations.
When we talk about having a Nation to Nation relationship with the Federal government, it’s important that we organize ourselves as a Nation. It is also important that we understand what our interests are. I clearly remember having a large stack of reports being put on my desk on my first day in this role. A lot of it was technical information related to the operation of dams and the control of the river flows. Some of it was correspondence among various organizations representing First Nations’ interests in the ongoing negotiations.
After sifting through the hundreds of pages, several themes began to emerge. First Nations were never engaged in the original negotiation of the treaty, and engagement in ongoing operations was and is minimal. First Nations were significantly concerned about the environmental impacts to the Columbia River Basin (basin), including the extirpation of salmon. There has been no economic compensation to the First Nations in the basin. And finally, there were many different people representing various aspects of the Secwepemc Nation.
Because of the lack of coordination, the story of the Secwepemc Nation was not being told effectively in the ongoing Columbia River Treaty discussions. With any complex issues, it’s important to prioritize or risk getting caught up in the minutia. With this in mind, I developed four strategic priorities which I felt gave enough direction to move forward on some issues. The first priority was to speak with one Secwepemc voice. This would give power to the issues our people were bringing forth. The second was to get a seat at the table. Next is consideration for the natural function of the river, a one river approach. And finally, compensation for the historic and ongoing impacts to the Secwepemc way of life. Achievement of each priority would enable work on the next priority.
Check out what the Tribal leaders had to say about the Columbia River Treaty here: vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/opinion-indigenous-nations-must-be-included-in-the-re-negotiation-of-the-columbia-river-treaty
Our stories as Indigenous peoples are powerful. It’s time we take our power back and tell our own story. This can only be achieved through listening and having the courage to win.